A Taste of Damascus

Indulge in the flavours of the Middle East when you visit Damascus, Syria.

Jun 25, 2009
For those seeking sustenance in Damascus, the souks are the place to be.
For those seeking sustenance in Damascus, the souks are the place to be.
Photography Marcus Gortz

Following your taste buds through Damascus is a delight, from the divine seasonal fruit juices squeezed on the street (they could be mulberry, pomegranate or orange), to almonds thrust out to taste in Straight Street to increasingly sophisticated restaurants.

Often housed in spectacular courtyard mansions, these restaurants mean that apart from what is on your plate, you can taste the opulence of the 500-year-long Ottoman Empire.

Hot and cold meze are, of course, king of the menu, from classic tabbouleh, baba ghanoush and hummus to more complex muhammara (a purée of walnuts, red pepper and pomegranate syrup) or maqduz (preserved baby aubergines stuffed with walnuts and garlic—silky-soft yet with a bite).

Restaurants By Neighbourhood

Upscale places like Elissar, Casablanca or Naranj (the latest and buzziest, its clientele typified by a nightly stream of glossy black SUVs) are in the Christian quarter of the old city where alcohol is served—along with a few French dishes.

The adjoining Muslim quarter offers tourist-friendly places clustered round the Umayyad mosque like Leila’s, and excellent value old favourites just a few streets away, such as Beit al-Jabri and the wonderful Al Khawali.

Outside the walls, closer to the Four Seasons, smart residential districts and Mount Qassioun, western-style restaurants are multiplying, but the quality is generally good.

Souks and Markets

For foodies on the prowl, the souks are heaven. In the Souq al-Buzuriyya the sensual attack is led by Oriental spices, freshly roasted coffee beans, saffron, dried apricots, glace fruit, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, cardamom and za’atar, an exotic, aromatic seasoning of wild marjoram, thyme, sumac and sesame seeds.

Round the corner, in the main Souq al-Hamidiyeh, comes a surprise—the century-old ice cream parlour, Bakdash, where ices are hand-churned with mastic and sahlab, a thickener from an orchid root.

Outside the old walled city, specialist markets take in an entire carnivore’s street and dozens of stalls stacked with trays of sweets and pastries, from sticky baklawa to milky puddings laced with rosewater and pistachios.

And as you trawl the gastronomic wonders, you might easily find yourself face to face with a camel, because however much Damascus is sharpening up its act, this is the real thing, the heart of the Middle East.


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